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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Horse’s rooftop rescue gives flood-hit Brazil ‘something we could root for’

Volunteers form a human corridor to receive boats with people rescued from flooded areas Tuesday at the Sao Joao neighborhood in Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul state, Brazil.  (Anselmo Cunha)
By María Luisa Paúl Washington Post

When a news crew’s helicopter swept over the catastrophic floods in Brazil’s southern state of Rio Grande do Sul on Wednesday, it captured a striking image: a horse trapped on a strip of a tin roof, surrounded by the same murky waters that had left entire neighborhoods looking as though they had been swallowed by a river.

The visual quickly became a symbol of both resilience and devastation as historic flooding killed more than 120 people and displaced hundreds of thousands. Soon, the race to save Caramelo, as the horse was dubbed on social media for his caramel-colored coat, would transfix the South American nation – and unify them in joy after he was rescued Thursday.

“It felt like God smiled upon us, even if it was just for a little bit,” said Guilherme Silva, a 34-year-old resident of Porto Alegre, the state’s capital and one of the worst-affected cities.

For more than a week, Silva witnessed one of Brazil’s most extensive environmental catastrophes wreak havoc in his state. A deluge that showered the area with three months’ worth of rain between the end of April and early May caused a slew of rivers to overflow, leaving parts of Porto Alegre filled with brown water.

“It was like something out of the apocalypse,” he said. But on Wednesday, Silva – like many others – spotted “a ray of hope” splashed across his phone screen: a video of Caramelo atop a roof in Canoas, a city just north of the state capital.

“In the middle of so much heartbreak, it was like finally finding something we could root for,” Silva said. “It wasn’t about valuing animal life more than human life – it was about hope. Because if a horse could survive by standing over a fragile roof, who’s to say we can’t recover from this tragedy?”

Cries to save the beleaguered chestnut horse soon flooded social media – many hashtagged #SalvemOCavaloDeCanoas, or Save the Canoas Horse. Brazilian YouTuber and philanthropist Felipe Neto offered to pay “any millionaire with a decent soul” willing to make their helicopter available. Others prayed for a miracle.

Those pleas caught the attention of Brazil’s first lady, Rosângela da Silva, nicknamed Janja. Early on Thursday morning, she said on X that she had contacted first responders and that a team would soon be mobilized to rescue Caramelo.

It would turn into a complex operation involving several helicopters and five boats, with a slew of service members, volunteers, firefighters and veterinarians on the scene.

According to the São Paulo state public safety department, nine firefighters, who led the mission, drove down a highway in trucks until they reached the flood zone. They traded the trucks for two neon-orange inflatable boats to continue the mission.

Veterinarians and others followed in three support vessels. The fleet navigated more than two miles of brackish water that made Canoas look like a stretch of canals dotted by trees and rooftops. Meanwhile, across Brazil, eyeballs were glued to television screens as networks broadcast the operation live. Some of Caramelo’s fans shared their reactions on social media.

“The boat team must be getting close.”

“I’ll cry when they reach him.”

“I don’t know if I’m alive or just waiting for the rescue of Caramelo, the horse.”

Around 10:40 a.m. the teams reached a horse that looked to be “in a debilitated state,” said Capt. Tiago Franco of the São Paulo state firefighters, adding that they “tried to approach [Caramelo] in a very calm way.” The vets then did a checkup and sedated the 771-pound horse, who was placed into one of the inflatable boats.

The hard part was over.

After the boats reached a dry patch some 30 minutes later, Caramelo was transported to a local animal hospital, where he’s being hydrated as he regains his strength. On Friday, Mariângela Allgayer, one of the vets caring for him, said Caramelo is in “stable condition” and has a “very favorable outlook.”

In a country mired by tragedy, Caramelo’s rescue brought some respite and cause for celebration. But the symbolism of a horse surviving against all odds was especially poignant in Rio Grande do Sul, a state known for its independent streak and deep ties to the gaucho – or cowboy – culture.

“Rio Grande do Sul has gaucho fantasies, just like Texas has cowboy fantasies,” said Dain Borges, a history professor at the University of Chicago. “It began with grasslands and ranching and has since become a big agribusiness state. But there’s still a lot of nostalgic ties to the past.”

Every year, during “Semana Farroupilha,” or ragamuffin week, locals celebrate that gaucho tradition and commemorate the region’s 1835 uprising over taxation, which led to a separation – albeit brief – from the rest of Brazil. There’s dancing and barbecuing, followed by an annual march, during which people, dressed as gauchos, parade down the street on horseback.

That’s why Caramelo – and his survival – has become “a reminder of the resilience of the ranching past,” Borges said. “Just like it would be if these were floods in Texas, for example.”